David Canright’s Concert Review



Concert in Celebration of the Chrysalis New Music Studio
Instruments and Music by Cris Forster

          On October 4 and 5, 2003, the Chrysalis New Music Studio opened its doors to introduce itself and present some new music to an intrigued public. This studio, located in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, is the new performance and rehearsal space of the Chrysalis Foundation (see http://www.chrysalis-foundation.org), “a nonprofit organization that supports the creation of new acoustic musical instruments, encourages the composition of music in alternative tuning systems, and promotes live performance of this music.
It appears that the Chrysalis Foundation is currently devoted to supporting the pioneering work of a single individual who does all of these things extraordinarily well: Cris Forster.

          I have known Cris for decades, but he was doing music long before. Working with the Harry Partch Foundation (as curator and performer, 1976-1980), Cris became passionately inspired by certain of Partch’s ideals, and has been building instruments, composing and performing acoustic music in Just Intonation ever since. His array of instruments outgrew his space at home, and this new studio at last provides an environment where all his instruments can be together, set up, ready to play.

          This studio started as one of those South-of-Market industrial spaces
basically a long boxy space. But Cris and the Foundation put a lot of work into transforming it into a very nice studio, with a whole new floor and a small anteroom that acoustically insulates the performing area from street noise. Skylights give a nice ambiance, and overall it has a pleasant, airy feel, with good acoustics for performing before a small audience.

          The instruments reflect Cris’s consummate craftsmanship and attention to detail; each is a work of art in its own right. Some of his instruments are similar to those of Partch, but with significant improvements, sturdier construction, and finer finish. (While Partch described himself as “a philosophic music man seduced into carpentry,
Cris worked for many years as a piano technician, a valuable background for his instrument building.) His Harmonic/Melodic Canon follows Partch’s basic layout of a box with strings, but Cris put small holes in his soundboard for placing individual, adjustable bridges for each string, and his choice of a 1-meter string length, with centimeter markings on the soundboard, allow these bridges to be positioned precisely. (Cris also has a Bass Canon, of similar design but larger, which was not played in this performance.) And Cris’s Diamond Marimba is comparable to Partch’s, but Cris extends the tonality diamond to the 13-limit, and adds a few more bars for convenient tones. Also Cris has a Bass Marimba, as did Partch, but Cris developed his own technique of tuning the lowest overtones of each bar to octaves above the fundamental, giving his instrument a unique and powerful sound.

          Other instruments are completely new in concept. The “Chrysalis
has metal strings on both sides of a large rotating wheel. The bridge is an off-center hub, giving a range of string lengths; the hub on the other side is offset in the opposite direction. In performance, this instrument has great visual impact, as Cris spins the wheel to different positions to access different strings. The “Glassdance is based on the glass harmonica, but instead of having fixed wine glasses that the player strokes, here the stems of the glasses and goblets are mounted through a vertical panel with a mechanism behind that keeps the glasses continuously rotating; the player just touches them (using chamois finger covers dipped in alcohol) to get a sound. Cris went to great lengths to ensure that the machinery cannot be heard; you hear only the ethereal tones of the glasses.

          And a relatively recent instrument is “Just Keys,
a piano that Cris has restrung and retuned, so that two midrange octaves each cover 17 keys, higher octaves the usual 12 keys, and the lowest octave only 10 keys. (Cris explained that the constraints of the iron harp of the piano limited the possibilities.)

          The concert began after an informal reception featuring an impressive array of delicious appetizers. With all the chairs full and a few more people standing, Cris came out and bowed respectfully to the audience (a gesture repeated by each performer later).

          The first two selections were from an early work that I had enjoyed in its entirety many years before: Song of Myself: Eleven Intoned Poems of Walt Whitman. These poems are delivered by Cris using “intoned speech,
a style of speaking on specific pitches (while avoiding any semblance of singing) that Harry Partch incorporated into many of his early works. Some listeners find this approach a bit uncomfortable because it’s not speaking and it’s not singing. However, being familiar with the style, I feel that Cris uses it effectively to communicate the drama and emotion of the poems.

          Cris started with “A child said
What is the grass?’ accompanying himself on the Chrysalis, which had been tuned such that he could play melodic passages by stroking particular sections of the wheel. With the other poem, “The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, Cris plays the Harmonic/Melodic Canon, featuring a descending motif. One particularly memorable effect is where he plucks a string and presses on the other side of the bridge, emulating a haunting hawk cry.

          The rest of the concert comprised selections from a large work in progress, Ellis Island/Angel Island: A Vision of the American Immigrants. Cris was born in Brazil, then moved to Germany, before coming to the US, and this work draws not only on his own immigration experience but also on his strong feelings about how immigration has always contributed an essential ingredient to the mix that is America. Expecting more intoned text with accompaniment, I was surprised to find that these selections (maybe the whole piece?) are entirely instrumental.

          Cris plays Just Keys, his modified piano, in the first selection, “The Letter,
and also in the third selection, “In the Park. (Cris earned a degree in piano performance.) These two pieces seemed similar in texture, with lovely melodies and the clear harmonies of his justly tuned piano; the overall effect was reminiscent of French Impressionist pianism.

          In “Lullaby,
the second selection, Heidi Forster (Cris’s wife) plays Glassdance. The ethereal sounds of the glasses gave this melodic piece a plaintive quality. (I think I was not alone in finding that sound entrancing.)

          “Dream Time
features Cris on the Diamond Marimba. This piece was very rhythmic and percussive, and explored some of the small intervals that result across the tonality diamond. I was reminded of Partch; perhaps this is unavoidable on an instrument with such a characteristic sound.

          The final piece, “The Harbor,
at last combined instruments: Cris played Diamond Marimba, Heidi played Glassdance, and Robert Danielson played the Bass Marimba. The rich interplay among these three very different sounds was exciting and effective. This was a rousing finish to the concert, and left me wanting to hear more multi-instrument compositions. Perhaps this new studio will encourage creating more such ensemble pieces.

          At the conclusion of the concert the enthusiastic audience expressed their appreciation with a standing ovation. (By request of the performers, there was no applause between pieces.) And with the successful opening of the Chrysalis New Music Studio, we can look forward to many more performances to come. Meanwhile, Cris keeps composing, following his own vision of new music. As Cris said, “The blank page awaits...

-David Canright

Nov. 16, 2003





Concert in Celebration of the Chrysalis New Music Studio